BOOKS AND ARTS JULY 14, 2008
The problem with an anti-corporate parable shilling for one specific corporation.
Pixar's new film, WALL-E, is a dystopia, and so it is surprising that conservatives find it so distasteful--they usually love the genre. Neocons like Norman Podhoretz have posthumously ordained Orwell a believer, and George W. Bush's stem-cell opposition reportedly began with Brave New World, and yet the National Review’s website denounces WALL-E as "Malthusian fear mongering," "leftist propaganda," and a "90-minute lecture." WALL-E, the film's eponymous hero, is learning first-hand what Sponge Bob and the Teletubbies could have told him: No playground is off-limits in the culture war.
One wonders if conservatives carp out of a sense of betrayal: WALL-E's antagonist is not your usual unchecked nanny state but a global corporation named Buy N Large whose bumbling CEO implores humanity to "stay the course." No one wants to discover Big Brother hiding in the branches of her family tree. Noting the film's distribution by Disney, WALL-E's detractors have cried hypocrisy. National Review contributor Greg Pollowitz even encouraged a boycott.
You can tune out these complaints, for they are isolated dissonances in a critical chorus that has otherwise sung WALL-E's praises: It has garnered a 97-percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The New Republic's Christopher Orr wrote, "You might have to go back the better part of a century to find a mainstream movie in which so much is conveyed with so very few words." The film is indeed charming and as visually stunning as its enthusiasts claim, but WALL-E's conservative critics are right to identify a problem with its message. Unfortunately, they've misdiagnosed it. There's nothing wrong with the film's anti-corporatism, which is just a variation of the anti-totalitarianism that's requisite to the genre. More troublesome is the film's complicity in the commodified culture it ostensibly critiques. This isn't about Disney, whose external merchandise and marketing are extraneous to the film's artistic vision. Within the movie itself, WALL-E betrays its true corporate overlord, and it isn't Mickey. It's Apple.
WALL-E is the last robot on Earth. He compacts the trash that has overtaken the planet and, from the scrapheap, salvages artifacts of humanity for his personal keeping. Mankind fled the pollution on a spaceship seven centuries earlier and has wallowed on a spaceship ever since, hemmed into cocoons of Buy N Large robotics, Buy N Large liquid meals, and Buy N Large television screens.
Andrew Stanton, the writer and director of the film, described the point of his story as "the premise that irrational love defeats life’s programming, and that the most robotic beings I've met are us." The film--in fact, much of Pixar's oeuvre, as Orr pointed out--depends on an ironic inversion: The human characters are artificial and unthinking, while the robotic hero is authentic, even humane. Buy N Large has so commodified peoples' lives that the remnants of humankind have grown uniformly overweight and lazy. (A filmgoing companion of mine whispered that they were probably American.) They interact through microphones and screens, even when their colleagues are within earshot. The BNL logo tattoos every facet of their existence, from their clothing to their spaceship.
It falls to WALL-E to reintroduce humans to their humanity. When he arrives on the spaceship, he accidently disables some of its residents' television screens, allowing them to notice their surroundings, and each other, for the first time. A side-romance between two humans ensues. Earlier, when WALL-E discovers an engagement ring amid the rubble, he discards the ring and keeps its box. His appreciation is a genuine, aesthetic one, detached from any sense of his objects' monetary and practical values. We are supposed to recognize in WALL-E's clunky frame, his expressive binocular eyes, and his treasuring of human trash a nonmaterialistic authenticity that mankind has traded for Buy N Large’s bourgeois comforts. His mementos-- bowling pins, Rubik's cubes, garden gnomes, rubber duckies, Christmas lights, an iPod mini--enrich rather than ease his existence.
If that last item in WALL-E's collection seems anomalous, well, it is. As it turns out, WALL-E's own world is not washed of branding. The iPod stands out for its modern sleekness, a swan among WALL-E's flock of ugly ducklings. (Apparently an iPod with a seven-century shelf life is forthcoming.) WALLE is so enamored with the iPod that his love interest EVE, as many reviewers have noticed, resembles one. This isn't coincidental: Jonathan Ive, Apple's senior vice president of industrial design, was consulted on her design. The film contains several other shout-outs to Apple: old mice, desktop wallpapers, an Apple speech synthesizer. Even adorably uncouth WALL-E bears the Apple imprimatur: When he powers on, he sings the iBook's startup chime.
Steve Jobs was CEO of both Apple and Pixar before he sold the latter to Disney in 2006, and one wonders if these references are like the small rebellions of a foster child longing for a former parent. Jobs learned early on that dystopias were fertile ground for Apple’s rebellious image: A famous 1984 Super Bowl ad proposed the Macintosh as the antidote to 1984-style totalitarianism. After years away from the company, Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 and introduced the slogan "Think Different" (meaning, of course, "Think Apple"). WALL-E’s Apple plugs are the latest evidence of how successfully Jobs has swathed his company in countercultural hipness. It is odd to see a film with authenticity as its subject embrace a corporation’s image-making so unquestioningly. The moviegoer whose iPhone interrupts the movie can rest assured that his device has no connection to the future portended on screen--after all, WALL-E--and WALL-E--are on his side.
Dystopias are parables. We recognize in their extremes the endgame of our own complacencies. WALL-E relies on this identification--the culture WALL-E safeguards is our culture, his objects are our objects. The distinction between the authentic and the artificial is a critical judgment, and conflation only abets the Buy N Larges. Without the iPod, without EVE, without the iBook chime, WALLE would be merely sentimental; with them, it’s compromised. A movie about the triumph of authenticity over artificiality shouldn’t also be an exercise in brand identification. Apple may please the filmmakers’ tastes more than Buy N Large and its box-store ancestors, but in the end, its corporate motives aren’t so different. The film’s problem is not that its message is too anti-business or too liberal, but that it doesn’t really believe in it. WALL-E may be about a future dystopia, but it’s a symptom, not a diagnosis.
Ben Crair is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.